Monday 23 February 2015


The latest in BBC4's Saturday night subtitled slot is Israeli drama 'Hostages', similarly styled and paced to things like 'Homeland' and '24' but... shorter (ten 40-minute episodes).  It benefits from the lack of slack, and the baggier US version was not a hit.  Yael, a top Jerusalem surgeon, is about to operate on the Israeli PM.  She's confident and it's a routine procedure, but the night before the scheduled op, masked gunmen break into her nice suburban home and take her family hostage, making it clear to her that either the Premier dies under her knife, or they kill her husband and two children.

Certain things must be taken as read here: Yael is resourceful and is going to try anything to save her family and her career; her teacher husband has serious financial problems which he hasn't yet got around to telling his wife about; her teenaged daughter has just discovered she's pregnant; her son is running a cheating racket for schoolmates in exams; one of the terrorists has been, at least until now, working for the state and another is a psychopath.

So far this has been a rollercoaster of neat surprises, but our question is the usual one, namely can this sustain a further eight episodes without losing the pace on the one hand or losing credibility on the other.  No doubt there are more family skeletons rattling impatiently in the closet, phantoms stalking the hostage-takers and doubtless a few shady secrets surrounding the PM, though, so we're hoping for an entertaining few weeks.

Wednesday 18 February 2015

Indian Summers

This is Channel 4's new, lavish drama about the last years of the British Raj, in the tradition of Scott's 'Jewel in the Crown' and Forster's 'A Passage to India', but without their literary sources.  It's set in 1932 Simla, where the colonial ruling class retreated from the heat each summer.

Alice (Jemima West) is taking her baby by train to join her up-and-coming brother Ralph Whelan (Henry Lloyd-Hughes), having fled an adulterous husband.  Ralph meanwhile has a strange mentor in Cynthia Coffin (Julie Walters), the earthy widowed owner of the Simla Club (no dogs or Indians) who uses her servant to procure American heiress Madeleine Mathers (Olivia Grant) for him.  Ralph and Alice haven't seen each other since they were separated by boarding schools as children and are uneasy in their relationship.  The sense of entitlement of the British and the indolence this generates contrast sharply with the busy lives of the Dalal family, where son Aafrin (Nikesh Patel) is romancing a Hindu girl and trying to make his way in the Civil Service while his sisters are involving themselves in the growing call for home rule.  Two incidents - Hindustani graffiti over a portrait of the late Queen Victoria and an injured half-caste boy lying on a railway track - intrude on the struggles for survival and one-upmanship and are the portents of change.  Is Ralph a focus of discontent because of what he represents, or is it something more personal?

The trailers did this no favours, since the first, extra-long episode promises a rather more subtle drama than the likes of 'Downton'.  We were given a cursory introduction to the main actors ("You never told me you were Whelan's sister - he's Private Secretary to the Viceroy!" etc.) but there was enough sex and violence to be going on with and keep up the tension: brutality and illicit affairs seem to be the tropes of any Empire saga, and as 21st Century television, this doesn't shy away from exposing the moral rot that accompanied British rule on the Indian subcontinent.  Will it sustain a further 9 episodes?  Just possibly, and if the experience of the Himalayan foothills and bias cut dresses to a 30s soundtrack doesn't have you fiddling with the remote, you'll probably be intrigued enough to keep following along for now.

Monday 16 February 2015

The Casual Vacancy

Rather too much ham?

Having not read any of the Harry Potter books, nor watched the films, we can't say we came to this with eager anticipation.  Rowling seems to have set her sights firmly on the crime genre now with her second outing as Robert Galbraith on the shelves, but between magic and murder came 'The Casual Vacancy', an adult lit fic novel that garnered fairly mixed reviews.

Pagford is a fictional Gloucestershire village... and a metaphor for the seething, grasping, petty bourgeoisie of modern middle-England, according to Rowling.  The first hour (of three) introduced us to the spread of characters from the rich Sweetloves ("My wife does fun runs... well she knows people who do") to young hotpants-wearing Krystal Weedon (Abigail Lawrie) whose big mouth and drug-addicted mother bring her nothing but trouble.  The catalyst for the action is the death of Parish Councillor Barry Fairbrother (Rory Kinnear) who opposed the development of a town spa as "social engineering".  His titular vacancy is now being fought over by the pro and anti-spa lobbies, in a way that will have the Daily Mail frothing about BBC Leftie Dramas and turning over to watch the Good Old Days of the Raj on Channel 4, or possibly the entrepreneurial (if American) spirit of Mr. Selfridge on ITV.

Did we like it?  It had its moments, inevitably with this calibre of cast, but overall its tone was uneven and its characters so stark as to be almost cliche.  No doubt TV producers thought the book was an obvious choice for an adaptation, but the novel is a long one, with plenty of room for nuance, and 180 minutes of television is not going to bring out the best in the material.  We felt bludgeoned by the juxtaposition of soft sandstone exteriors and modern social housing, and an incessant soundtrack.  Extremes exist, of-course, in real villages and towns, so it's quite a feat that this feels so unnatural.  Maybe it's the - it has to be said - Harry Potteresque nature of everyone so far.  The Mollisons (Michael Gambon and Julia McKenzie) are shallow, devious snobs while Fairbrother, whose online identity someone is appropriating (or are they?) to comment on the ongoing Pagford squabbles, was just trying to do the right thing for the locals, and his abused nephews.   We have the comically absurd plotting of the Councillors one minute and a toddler being neglected in a drug den the next.  The problem of being not-quite drama and not-quite comedy is that the social commentary comes across as rather blatant, and black and white worlds tend to make drab grey dramas.

Tuesday 3 February 2015


Fortitude is Sky's new big-budget drama - reportedly costing £30m for 12 episodes, broadcast here on Sky Atlantic, in the US on cable network Pivot, and pre-sold to a number of other broadcasters around the world.

We should start with the business side of the programme, because it's clearly a business-driven enterprise - an attempt to make an internationally appealing show that will generate revenue and become a 'franchise' or more accurately, a licence to print money.

The different elements are there - an international cast of well-respected actors (Brits, Nordics, Americans), internationally known stars from previous big hits (Sophie Gråbøl from 'The Killing', Christopher Eccleston from 'Doctor who', Michael Gambon from the 'Harry Potter' films, Stanley Tucci from 'The Hunger Games'), a beautiful and unusual setting - the Arctic - and a script that promises lots of twists and turns, not to mention red herrings.

Fortitude is the name of a small town in the Arctic Circle, and serves as the setting for the show.  Based on Svalbard, a town with a population of 2,000 people, Fortitude itself has just 700 people, and as the Mayor, played by Sophie Gråbøl, explains, everyone who is there has a job, so there is no crime.  Characters range from policemen, photographers, doctors, plus what looks like some miners or similarly industrial workers.  Oh - and there's a bar full of hairy heavy metal fans with unspecified jobs, and there seem to be just two children that we've seen so far (and presumably a school teacher?).

Given that you have this community of interdependent people in a hostile environment, what it resembles a bit is a space drama.  Who is killing members of the crew?  Is it a monster out in the wild, or is it the enemy within? 

The first episode moved along well though, and we will continue watching.  Whether it justifies the big investment from a financial point of view remains to be seen; the last show Sky heralded quite as enthusiastically as this was The Tunnel, and that never made it to a second series.